The pocket-size clock in Bruce Romer's office has been counting backward for months, and as the seconds spin past each benchmark, the Montgomery County chief administrative officer flinches. The year 2000 nears.

"When it turned from 100 days to 99 days, it gave me a reality check," said Romer, who has supervised Montgomery's three-year preparation for midnight Dec. 31. "You can see it getting closer, and it makes concrete what you have done and what's left to do."

Which, at this stage in the county's Y2K frenzy, is nothing much except wait and see how Montgomery residents and the rest of the Washington region behave on a New Year's Eve like no other. County officials say it's not computer chips and circuit boards they worry will malfunction. It's something far less predictable: people.

Montgomery County has spent $50 million on Y2K preparations--patching, testing and inspecting nearly 300 separate computer networks. Romer says the systems will work flawlessly when their internal two-digit year turns from 99 to OO--the quirk computer experts say could confuse any system that interprets the date as something other than 2000.

But millennium revelers and chronic worriers are another matter, prompting county officials to suggest that the only thing Montgomery residents have to fear on New Year's Eve is fear itself--and the usual hazards that crop up on that holiday.

"Our biggest worry is people acting out of the ordinary," said Gordon Aoyagi, Montgomery's fire administrator. "Don't call 911 at midnight to see if it works. And if we have a drunk driver that takes out a utility poll, don't assume its Y2K. Don't overreact."

The wild card of human behavior could disturb Montgomery's best-laid Y2K preparedness plans, celebrated on the CBS-TV news show "60 Minutes" and in other national media as a model. The county established the Y2K Project Office to develop and manage a fix-and-test system that, while reportedly effective, has cost significantly more than preparations undertaken by other regional jurisdictions.

Of the systems deemed essential when the county opens for business Jan. 3, only a computer that does administrative work on the employee pension plan had not been "certified" Y2K ready--the final stage in the county process--by Christmas. But it had passed all compliance tests. Six other systems have been "deactivated," meaning they will require more work after the New Year.

"Our citizens can feel good that we have approached it this way," Romer said. "We are ready."

Nonetheless, Montgomery officials are taking few chances. They plan to activate the emergency operations center--where utility, municipal, state and Red Cross officials will join county staff--at the County Council building in Rockville early on Dec. 31. From there, they will track developments in their own county and around the world for clues to what Y2K may hold as it arrives first in Asia and Europe.

The county has identified six high schools for use as shelters, which they will open only if necessary. There are jackhammers, cutting tools, diving gear and various other equipment on hand used by search-and-rescue teams and the public works department.

County officials say residents should not call 911 with Y2K-related questions, but should use the number only in cases of emergency. Residents should first call the Y2K Project Office at 240-777-2940, then if needed, the county crisis center at 301-315-4000.

In the past year, Montgomery has held a dozen forums on Y2K preparedness and printed a pamphlet instructing residents how to get ready for potential emergencies. The pamphlet has been translated into Spanish, French, Korean, Cambodian, Farsi, Chinese and Vietnamese.

Since a January ice storm that struck Montgomery particularly hard, the county has 200 portable stop signs to put in place should signal lights fail. About 3,000 MREs and 9,000 one-liter bottles of water will be available for county workers, and the detention center kitchen will be activated to prepare food if the county opens shelters.

About 200 additional county employees will be working New Year's Eve, helping the contingent of police, fire, detention center workers and other emergency personnel already scheduled for duty. A heightened number of off-duty public safety workers will be on call in case problems arise during the night. The county estimates that it will spend $70,000 to $150,000 on overtime pay for the weekend.

Montgomery officials are planning to make a debt-service payment due in January this month just in case computer problems arise in the new year. They will be printing checks for two payrolls before the new year as a precaution. And they have established contingency plans in case phone service shuts down because of computer problems.

First, police will respond to the 33 county fire stations where residents should go if they lose a dial tone. Police radios will be used for communication. If those fail, the county's 44 buses will be dispatched to fire stations where their on-board radios will be used. HAM radios and qualified operators will be on standby as a last resort.

Montgomery's Y2K work will not end on New Year's Day. Throughout the weekend, department heads and staff members have been scheduled to test the computer equipment to ensure that it is running on Monday morning. County buses will be started up over the first weekend of the New Year, even though the engines do not rely on computers.

"With all that has been said about Y2K, this goes to our core mission," said Romer, referring to precautions the county is taking even though officials predict no problems.

"It's also a logical extension of the work we have done to this point. Our citizens expect us to be on duty in times of need--or potential need."

JUST IN CASE

A Checklist of Y2K Helpful Hints and Phone Numbers

If the new year brings problems to Montgomery County, here is a list of places to go and phone numbers to call.

Montgomery County Y2K Office (general information): 240-777-2940.

Crisis Center 301-315-4000.

Emergency only 911.

In case of power outages or other problems, the county will use six high schools as shelters. Officials will announce the names of the schools through the media.

If phone service goes out, county officials say, residents should go to the nearest fire station, where two-way police radios will be available.

What supplies should you have on hand in case there are Y2K problems? The same food and equipment you would keep for a weather emergency, according to federal Y2K experts, as well as up-to-date financial and medical records.

Bottled water (a gallon per person per day).

At least three days' worth of nonperishable, ready-to-eat food.

Flashlights, battery-operated radio, extra batteries.

Extra supplies for infants, the elderly or others with special needs.

Make sure your car's gas tank is more than half-full.

Enough cash for a couple of days, but not too much because of the risk of theft.

Check with the manufacturer whether computers, security systems, programmable thermostats and other home equipment are Y2K-compatible.

More information is available on the Internet at www.y2k.gov.

SOURCE: Federal Emergency Management Agency, President's Council on Y2K Conversion.